Times obituary: Christopher Booker

Quixotic, peppery and reliably bloody-minded right-wing journalist and co-founder of Private Eye who delighted in teasing his enemies

July 4 2019, 12:01am, 

As a student at Cambridge, Christopher Booker announced that his ambitions were to edit a magazine, appear on television and marry the daughter of an aristocrat. By the age of 25 he had prematurely achieved all three.

On graduating he founded Private Eye with his old school chums Richard Ingrams and Willie Rushton and became the magazine’s first editor. That led to employment as a scriptwriter and occasional performer on BBC television’s pioneering satirical magazine show, That Was The Week That Was.

His aspirational hat-trick was completed in 1963 when he married Emma Tennant (obituary, January 24, 2017), the daughter of Lord and Lady Glenconner, and the half-sister of Colin Tennant, sometime suitor of Princess Margaret.

If it had all come too easily, it melted away just as quickly. While on honeymoon he was ousted as editor of Private Eye by Ingrams and within months had lost his TV income when TW3 was cancelled at the end of 1963. With an election year looming, the BBC feared the risqué programme could compromise its impartiality.

Before long the aristocratic connection had gone too, and after their divorce, Tennant married the journalist Alexander Cockburn in 1968.

Such disruptions caused a rethink, during which Booker underwent a religious conversion and reinvented himself as an astringent critic of the permissive society. Yet he continued to write for the Eye for the rest of his life as part of the magazine’s collaborative joke-writing team, “holding up a distorting mirror to all the political and social absurdities of our time”.

One of his most famous Private Eye covers — which to his irritation was sometimes erroneously attributed to Peter Cook — depicted Enoch Powell at the height of the racism row that cost him his job in Ted Heath’s shadow cabinet, holding his hands out wide and saying: “And some of them have got them this long.”

Booker remained a prolific contributor under Ian Hislop, who took over from Ingrams in 1986, and co-authored such well-loved Private Eye institutions as the Secret Diary of John Major, the Rev ARP Blair’s St Albion Parish News and Gordon Brown’s Prime Ministerial Decree. Other columns to which Booker contributed regularly included the threnodies of EJ Thribb and the left-wing rants of Dave Spart.

Yet by the late 1960s he was also pursuing a parallel career as an intellectual contrarian and polemicist of the “young fogey” school. Falling under the influence of the conservative Christian commentator Malcolm Muggeridge, he stayed at the older man’s home in Sussex for three months while he worked on a book in which he excoriated what he regarded as the decade’s excesses of liberalism.

The Neophiliacs: A Study of the Revolution in English Life in the Fifties and Sixties (1969) bemoaned manifestations of modern life from rock’n’roll to supermarkets via the relaxation of the gambling laws, miniskirts and James Bond films. All, he claimed, were “fashionable absurdities”.

The irony was not lost on Booker that his satirising in Private Eye of the old establishment personified by Harold Macmillan, Sir Alec Douglas-Home and their like had helped to fuel the social revolution of the 1960s that he was now attacking.

The Neophiliacs was serialised in The Sunday Telegraph and launched Booker as a social commentator swimming against the tide of “modernism”. Combining a sceptical populism with undoubted erudition, he attacked the “nanny state” and set himself against what he saw as a new and arrogant professional elite. His targets ranged from architects and town planners to scientists and doctors.

Although he had no scientific training, he wrote prolifically in denial of the consensus on issues including the link between passive smoking and cancer (Booker was a 30-a-day man) and the dangers posed by asbestos. We were being “scared to death” by the dire and unsubstantiated warnings of those who wanted to interfere with our life choices, he believed. Such ideas caused enough consternation for the Health and Safety Executive to issue refutations of several of his claims.

He was also a passionate denier of man-made climate change and included “teasing global warmists” among his recreations in Who’s Who. In his book The Real Global Warming Disaster (2009) he suggested that the measures taken by the world’s governments to reduce carbon emissions “will turn out to be one of the most expensive, destructive, and foolish mistakes the human race has ever made”.

Needless to say, he was widely rebuked by the scientific community and he was sued by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change over accusations he made about its chairman. Booker was only encouraged by such skirmishes. If he was getting under their skin that much, he was convinced he must be doing something right. His campaigning was consistent and his message, unlike the climate, never changed.

Even when he entered into the more sedate waters of literary criticism, his ability to engender controversy did not desert him. In The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004) he managed to condemn Chekhov, Proust, Joyce, Kafka and DH Lawrence while praising Crocodile Dundee, ET and Terminator 2.

A fiery academic debate followed the book’s publication, but even his sternest critics were forced to concede that the 700-page opus was as “stimulating” and “ambitious” as its conclusions were adversarial and perplexing.

Unsurprisingly, he was one of the first seriously to question Britain’s membership of the European Union and in his way was one of the architects of the Brexit vote in 2016. Together with Richard North he wrote The Mad Officials: How the Bureaucrats Are Strangling Britain, which was published in 1994 just as the Maastricht Treaty was ushering in a new era of expanded European integration.

His writings in The Daily Telegraph on the subject exasperated the paper’s editor Max Hastings, who wrote in his memoir that “Booker’s fanatical hostility to Europe increasingly distorted his journalism”.

When he was removed from his column in the paper he became a resident Euro-scourge at The Sunday Telegraph, filling his weekly column with denunciations of European perfidy and meddling, although the veracity of some of his wilder assertions — which included a claim that the EU wanted to abolish double-decker buses from the streets of London — was frequently challenged.

Dubbed “the patron saint of Leave” by former Telegraph colleague Walter Ellis, he should have viewed the result of the EU referendum as one of the crowning moments of his career. Yet the conduct of the campaign dismayed him. “He could see that the politicians who proposed to take us out of the EU hadn’t a clue how to go about it and he wasn’t afraid to say that in his columns,” one newspaper colleague noted.

Opinion was divided on whether his influence as a social and political commentator was harmless or pernicious. His fellow conservative commentator James Delingpole saw him as a heroic crusader who “speaks truth to power without fear or favour”. The writer and critic Adam Mars-Jones regarded him as “near-barmy”, yet it was said without malice.

Those who abhorred Booker’s views tended to take a gentler view of the man and indulge him as an archetypal English eccentric, with his soft voice, unfashionably long hair and a face that crumpled into a winning smile at any excuse. He was out of sorts with so much of the modern world, so it was perhaps fitting that he made his home in an old rectory in Somerset, where he lived with his third wife, Valerie (née Patrick). They married in 1979 after the annulment of his second marriage to Christine Verity, who was remarried to the historian Norman Stone. He is survived by Valerie and their two sons: Nicholas, an educationist, and Alexander, a lighting designer.

Christopher John Penrice Booker was born in 1937 in Somerset. His parents, John and Margaret Booker, ran a private prep school in Ilminster that they subsequently moved to Knighton House, Dorset.

He was one of three children. His sisters Joanna and Serena predeceased him.

Booker attended the Dragon School, Oxford, but it was as a pupil at Shrewsbury School that he formed life-changing friendships with Ingrams and Rushton. All three had spells editing the school magazine, as did another friend and future fellow journalist, Paul Foot. The divergent political leanings that would shape their respective careers were already mapped out in a school debate in which the motion was proposed “that this House deplores the decline of the landed gentry”, when Booker and Foot took opposing viewpoints.

Described by his headmaster as “an extraordinarily staid young man, reserved and studious, who used to spend his Sundays collecting fossils”, Booker went up to Corpus Christi, Cambridge, where he read history and met Peter Cook, another future Private Eye collaborator, while Ingrams went up to Oxford.

Excused National Service owing to his poor eyesight, Booker worked briefly for the Liberal Party on its newspaper and in 1961 landed his first Fleet Street post as jazz critic for the newly launched Sunday Telegraph. Among the reviews he wrote during his three-year tenure was a fulsome account of a concert by the pianist Erroll Garner, which never took place after a last-minute cancellation.

Also that year, “between Supermac and the rise of the Beatles”, Booker reunited with his fellow Old Salopians Ingrams and Rushton to found Private Eye. Early issues were assembled and pasted up in Rushton’s flat, with the cartoonist’s mother keeping them going with supplies of tomato soup and coffee.

As an editor, Booker was a perfectionist, highly strung and prone to temper tantrums. Pages were ripped up, telephones smashed, and on at least one occasion Ingrams felt compelled to lock him out of the office.

His ousting from the editor’s chair by Ingrams was symptomatic of a feisty relationship. Booker once wrote dismissively in The Spectator that Private Eye was “on its day a strong candidate for the most unpleasant thing in British journalism”. Yet a few days later he was happily back in the magazine’s Soho office for a joke-writing session.

Christopher Booker, journalist, was born on October 7, 1937. He died of cancer on July 3, 2019, aged 81

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